“We want something that’s less than state code, but better than nothing at all.”
— Building Safety Director Terry Summey
Irony, it seems, was the order of the day. Asheville City Council members Holly Jones and Carl Mumpower traded sarcastic barbs. Building Safety Director Terry Summey assured Council, “We want something that’s less than state code, but better than nothing at all.” The proposed “minimum standards” in the city’s revised housing code are much stricter than the same document’s “life safety” standards. And after Council members Joe Dunn and Jim Ellis had repeatedly urged Council to “trust our staff” and not “micromanage” their enforcement of the housing code, they and their Council allies abruptly changed course, unanimously supporting Jones’ motion that City Manager Jim Westbrook monitor housing inspectors’ complaint logs and report back to Council.
These and sundry other episodes only added to the drama at the Sept. 23 formal session as a bitterly divided Council voted 4-3 to yank some teeth from the city’s housing code. The new “complaint-driven” code was pushed through by Council members Joe Dunn, Ellis, Mumpower and Mayor Charles Worley — over the angry objections of Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, Council members Holly Jones and Brian Peterson, and a host of safe-housing advocates.
But the irony didn’t end there. The Building Safety Department — which less than two weeks earlier had won the International Code Council’s Community Service of the Year Award for “its untiring support of and dedication to professional code enforcement, and promoting public health, safety and welfare” — will now end its program of periodic safety inspections for rental properties.
“If they [landlords] have a housing certificate under the current code, then we’ll never see them again unless we get complaints,” Summey explained in his PowerPoint presentation to Council on the new code.
The same now goes for owner-occupied houses — as long as the owner holds a certificate of occupancy for the property, the city will no longer require an inspection every time the house changes occupants (though buyers are free to hire a private inspector). If it doesn’t have a C.O., a one-time-only “life safety” inspection will be done to ensure that it satisfies a short list of minimal safety requirements.
Much of the rancor played out in running battles over the strike-throughs and substitutions with which city staff filled every other page of the revised code, and over which requirements made it onto the life-safety list. It was the latest divisive battle between Asheville’s pro-business and pro-community factions — “two worlds in tension,” as Jones described them at one point.
Another bone of contention was the fact that Summey hadn’t released the revised code till the Friday before the Tuesday meeting — prompting complaints by Jones and Bellamy that neither they nor the public had been given enough time to review the complex document. Bellamy’s motion to postpone the issue until the next work session to allow more time for study failed when the same bloc of four voted it down.
“I want to go on record that we have an ongoing issue with getting the public true, adequate information in a timely way,” stated Jones.
Not content to wait for the meeting, three Council members had already met privately with Summey to review his planned presentation. Summey refused to tell this reporter who they were, but at various points during the meeting, remarks by Dunn, Mumpower and Ellis made it clear that they were the three in question. And Summey said he hadn’t met with the mayor, because “I already knew his position.”
Both Bellamy and Jones, however, peppered Summey with questions about changes in the code that appeared to weaken its standards, and often seemed dissatisfied with his explanations — in sharp contrast with Ellis, who kept urging Council to trust staff’s recommendations and approve the new code. (“My goodness, let’s take some advice from our staff!” he exclaimed at one point.)
One change that especially irked Jones was the recommendation that the average room temperature to which a heating system must be able to heat a house be lowered from 68 degrees — the standard in the state code — to 65 degrees. Like many of the changes, Summey justified this on the grounds that staff was “trying to not expect old houses to meet modern standards.” He didn’t think it really made a difference.
“It makes a difference to people if they’re cold!” Jones declared. But her motion to preserve the 68-degree standard failed, with Worley remarking that people could “put on a sweater” if they were cold.
The variance between the city and state codes prompted Dunn to ask Summey, “If we took everything and passed it right now, would it be stricter than the state?”
“It’s not equal to state code,” he answered, saying that the goal was to produce a less-restrictive set of rules.
Also scrapped was the former requirement for at least a 3-by-3-foot landing at the top of stairs leading down from a door. The landing, explained Summey, provides a secure place to stand before starting down the steps. “It’s considered safer,” he noted.
“Interesting,” commented Jones.
Other items dropped from the life-safety requirements included insulation, attic ventilation, exterior painting, missing shingles, screens on doors or windows, sanitation, extermination, and space requirements in rooms, though Summey did suggest to Council that owner-occupied houses might need to be scrutinized more closely in the future.
Inspections triggered by a complaint, however, will hold property owners to the code’s “minimum standards,” which are much stricter than the life-safety standards. And in a rare instance of actually making the code stricter, the new code specifies that if a life-safety deficiency is found, the landlord is required to notify his building’s occupants immediately, rather than within five days.
“If the owner happens to be on a week’s vacation, it would be difficult for him to do that,” worried Ellis, who suggested inserting language to make that requirement more flexible.
“If a landlord’s on a cruise, we wouldn’t want him to worry about life-safety issues,” Jones remarked sarcastically.
“I don’t know of any landlords who are taking cruises,” countered Dunn.
“If there’s anyone here who doesn’t care about people, please raise your hand,” interjected Mumpower.
Gripe, gripe, gripe
Under the new system, anyone — tenant, neighbor, Council member — can file a complaint that may prompt an inspection. They can even remain anonymous. And though inspectors will ask them if they’ve talked their landlord first, they won’t be require to do so. “I don’t want to see frivolous complaints,” objected Dunn. “I want to see the landlord complained to first, to give him a chance to do something about it.”
But Jones reminded Council that one of the purposes of mandatory inspections had been to avoid quizzing tenants about whether they’ve talked to the landlord, as well as to avoid being forced to distinguish between genuine complaints and those intended to harass someone.
Peterson, meanwhile, pointed out that under the new law, if an inspector receives a complaint or petition from at least five Asheville residents, he will be required to investigate that complaint. Assistant City Attorney Martha McGlohon concurred, though she added that the new law would leave it to the inspector’s discretion whether to follow up on single complaints. State law, she noted, does not require inspectors to investigate every complaint received. Nevertheless, she said, staff’s interpretation of state law is that they should follow up on every complaint.
“When someone sells a house and five residents complain,” Bellamy asked Summey, “does that require there to be a full inspection?”
“No,” he answered; “just [an inspection] of what the problem is.” If a complaint concerns peeling paint on the outside of a house, for example, inspectors won’t venture inside to look for further violations unless the tenant invites them to. But “our inspectors look with open eyes,” said Summey. And if they do observe other code violations while they’re checking out the complaint, they will require that those be corrected as well, said McGlohon.
Peterson, however, expressed concern that tenants may lack the technical knowledge needed to recognize something like faulty wiring, and an inspector responding to a different complaint might not notice a problem concealed within a wall.
“I can’t see that being a big deal,” countered Dunn.
Ellis, though, noted that “every complaint must be logged in” and the follow-up recorded and reported to the complainant. “To me, that’s very satisfactory,” he said.
“We’ll have to depend on the public to hold us accountable” for checking those logs, cautioned Jones.
During the public-comment portion of the hearing, one member of the public did try to hold Dunn accountable for what she asserted was a “clear conflict of interest” between his roles as landlord and as City Council member voting on regulations governing landlords.
“Councilman Dunn himself did not bring his own [rental] units up to standards for 21 months after receiving an initial inspection in January of 1998,” charged Beth Maczka, the former Executive Director of the Affordable Housing Coalition. She called it “a travesty” that Council members weren’t willing to inform the public whether their own properties had been inspected or fined within the last five years. (City Attorney Bob Oast gave his legal opinion that Council members’ various real-estate ties — which include Mayor Worley’s position as legal counsel for the Asheville Board of Realtors — did not constitute a conflict of interest under state law.)
Several days later, Dunn denied Maczka’s charge about the rental units in a call to Mountain Xpress. Xpress examined the Building Safety Department’s file on Dunn’s property and found that he had obtained valid housing certificates for all his units. The two that failed inspection in January 1998 were in fact re-inspected and certified three months later. The remaining two were separately inspected (at his request, Dunn says) and certified 21 months later, in September 1999. The separate certifications may have led to the misunderstanding — Maczka later told Xpress that a clerk at the department had read her Dunn’s inspection and certification dates over the phone shortly before the meeting.
The new code also drew fire from Affordable Housing Coalition Executive Director Sarah Uminiski, who said, “The purpose of re-examining this code was to … eliminate a lot of gray areas. I don’t see how that’s happened.” And longtime public-housing activist Minnie Jones showed Council a list of 100 signatures opposing the revisions. Jones also complained about not having been able to see the proposed new code before that night.
But Asheville resident Walter Plaue, speaking on behalf of the Carolina Real Estate Investors Association, praised the new code.
“I want to compliment Terry Summey and his staff. I received my copy of his PowerPoint presentation on Friday morning, and I had time to read it.”
Before Council voted to pass the code, however, there were more surprises. First, Mumpower proposed revisiting the code in six months to see how it’s working. Then Jones proposed that City Manager Westbrook monitor the inspectors’ logs to ensure that complaints are being responded to in a “reasonable” amount of time, and report back to Council.
Up to that point, Jones and Bellamy’s motions to modify or continue discussion of the code revisions had been shot down on 3-4 votes. It looked as though Jones’ proposal for Westbrook was headed south, too, as Ellis and Dunn took turns urging Council to stay out of staff’s way and “trust the experts in their field,” as Dunn put it.
But then the man whom Asheville’s city charter invests with more power than City Council allowed as how he would not mind checking up on the logs and reporting back.
Westbrook’s word prompted the entire bloc of four to abruptly change course, passing Jones’ motion on a unanimous voice vote.
“Thank you, city manager, for helping get this amendment passed,” she said with undisguised sarcasm.
Because the new code was approved on a 4-3 vote, the city’s rules require that a second reading and a second vote be held on Oct. 14.
“There will be no public comment then,” Worley emphasized. “It will be a formality.”
It wasn’t all acrimony at the meeting, however.
“This is one of the most satisfactory ordinances I’ve had the pleasure of voting on,” declared Mumpower — and in this instance, no one on Council disagreed. Responding to a growing barrage of complaints about “predatory” towing practices in poorly marked lots downtown and in Biltmore Village, Council passed an ordinance (modeled on similar laws in Greenville, N.C., and Chapel Hill) requiring parking-lot owners who tow to post a prominent warning notice. Among the law’s strict requirements — backed up by fines for lot owners who violate it — are that the sign must list the times and days when trespassers can be towed, a 24-hour phone number for someone who can release the car, and the cost of reclaiming it.
The city has also learned the hard way that coming down too hard on car owners who stuff unpaid parking tickets in their glove compartments can backfire. Till now, unpaid parking fines that start out at $10 have snowballed due to late penalties till the amount owed is so high that it’s almost impossible to collect from cash-strapped scofflaws without incurring the expensive of taking them to court, as Director of Transit and Parking Services Bruce Black had previously explained to Council. By capping the deliquency penalty at $75, the city can, under state law, begin using collection agencies and garnishing state income-tax refunds. The amendment to the Civil Penalties Schedule was passed on the consent agenda.
But the 4-3 split that had dominated the meeting opened up once more near its end, when Council members announced their preferred replacements for outgoing Planning and Zoning Commission members Jan Davis and Billy Buie. The commission plays a key role in approving new development in the city. Peterson, Bellamy and Jones all recommended Harry Weiss and Mark Vance, whereas Worly, Dunn, Mumpower and Ellis all favored Tom Byers and Steve Sizemore. Byers and Sizemore won the appointments.
[Additional reporting by Brian Sarzynski]